THEY COME at me from every direction, year-round. I've heard estimates that as many as 12 million Americans are afflicted with Fantasy Football--itis. ( Dan Marino is in a league with Boomer Esiason.) I'm surprised. That number seems low. � Several members of the world champion Red Sox are in a league, and last season righthander Derek Lowe asked me for fantasy advice. As did 647 passersby in airports, 413 callers to talk shows, five neighbors and even one Starbucks barista. "What's your gut feeling on who will score more touchdowns this year--Matt Schobel or Erron Kinney?" the latter inquired. "They're both in pretty tight-end-friendly offenses." I still get nasty e-mails about one of my 2002 fantasy tips. After I'd spent a day at Redskins camp, watching practice and drinking the Steve Spurrier Kool-Aid, I was convinced that Danny Wuerffel would be a serviceable-to-good quarterback for Washington that season. Put off drafting a passer till the middle rounds, I advised on SI.com, take an extra running back early, then grab Wuerffel in a later round. Wuerffel, of course, lasted as the Redskins' starter for all of about 10 minutes. "Nice call on Wuerffel," Brett Favre said to me that fall. I didn't redeem myself until last season, when I made little-known Antonio Gates of the Chargers my preseason pick to become the most productive tight end of 2004. (He caught 81 passes, including 13 for touchdowns.)
Why the intense interest in the fantasy game? Three reasons: 1) It feeds the inner general manager in all of us; 2) with the NFL's 16-game season, every game's a big event--and as with gambling, fantasy gives us a reason to care about every minute of action; and 3) Americans are competitive by nature. We like to build things, and we like to win. Then we like to brag about the winner we built. It sounds absurd, but a rabid Steelers fan who is also a fantasy player is more likely to ask me whether Ricky Williams is going to take carries away from Ronnie Brown in Miami than whether Ben Roethlisberger is the real deal in Pittsburgh.
My fantasy advice this year? Don't ask. But if you must, here are three tips: Draft Cowboys back Julius Jones very high--among the top five backs; he'll rush for 1,500 yards. The Patriots' Ben Watson will be this year's Gates, a top three tight end. And finally, don't take Wuerffel.